Cotton Wool as a Weapon of Mass Destruction

by rthieme on September 12, 2002

mcluhan Some things are so obvious they are invisible.

Prophets see them, prophets like Marshall McLuhan who lived between two eras and had the courage to say what he saw. Hence he was ridiculed, caricatured, and for a generation, largely forgotten. It’s all there in his breakthrough works – The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media – the so-called Internet Era described in terms of television networks. Long before the Internet, McLuhan saw how electronic communication redefined the space of human life. Make no mistake, human life does take place in a unique space, one of our own creation.
Distinctively human space emerged with the co-evolution of the brain and the system of throat, tongue, teeth that enabled us to make these symbols. Reading the writing on this screen means that you participate in the space of electronic communication, the content of which is literacy, the content of which was speech, the content of which was gesture.

This is that space, this virtual domain that we humans fall into so easily we mistake it for reality. It is not reality. It is a consensual hallucination that came into being long before the Internet.

Some things are so obvious they are invisible. This space of interaction and communication is invisible. Modern war is invisible. Weapons that do not look like weapons are invisible.

We are at war, we have been at war, we will be at war. Our society and economy are predicated on the existence of war.

The recreation of the terrorist attack on Washington DC and New York by the mass media yesterday was more than amplification, more than collusion. It was terrorism masquerading as rectitude and righteousness as terrorism always does.

Without mass media, September 11th does not exist. It would never have existed because it would not have been a weapon.

The theatrical violence we call “September 11th” was designed to keep on exploding not in New York but in the mind of society which is where this war is being fought. “September 11th” is a mosaic of linked meaningful images. The meanings have been generated by “reports” and “features” and “analyses” which define and reinforce those images.

One year later it is obvious that September 11th was an intentional symbol full of explosive charges which would keep on exploding the way secondary bombs are built to explode when rescuers arrive on the scene of a terrorist attack.

The first goal of terrorism is to degrade the confidence of a people in its government. The second is to undermine the economy.

The attack on September 11 was merely a fuse. The crash of the airliners was ignition. The explosions have taken place in your mind and my mind ever since and they get into our minds through mass media. We are fused with that media. The images we see and believe flow through cables plugged into the sockets of our skulls, blinding us to our complicity.

In 1967 Marshall McLuhan said that two wars could no longer be waged at the same time in the world. He meant, of course, the “space” of the world, that virtual space of collective awareness that we humans inhabit. He said that the Arab-Israeli War put a momentary halt to the Viet Nam War because news services sent everyone to the Middle East.

Asked about the kidnapping of Aldo Morro by an Italian journalist, McLuhan said, “You can end the Morro incident any time you want by just ceasing to cover it. Terrorism is an ingenious invention by which any two or more armed people can take over an entire billion dollar industry with the complete cooperation, not only of its workers, but of its owners.”

Sometimes I feel as if every single thing I think is a footnote to something said by McLuhan. But then, I have that feeling in relationship to Nietzsche too, a feeling reinforced every time I return to his work. That tells me that dead civilizations can take lots of bullets and walk for a long time before they fall.

The rectitude and righteousness of the pillars of society, unconscious that they are selling rope to those who would hang them, is the kind of blindness that made Jesus hate publicly religious people.

Because he wouldn’t shut up about it, they whacked him. Hammers and nails were the preferred weapons. Today the weapon of choice is cotton wool. We are wrapped in it, living in it, dying in it, blinded by it, looking through it at white space everywhere, hearing nothing but white noise.

There is war in Nepal, war in Georgia. There is war in Afghanistan Pakistan and India. There is a long war in Iraq. There are wars in Columbia, Venezuela, and Mexico, wars in Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, wars in Somalia, Tajikistan, and Libya, wars everywhere, everywhere in the world but there is no war here. Here there are only tracer bullets arcing in the night sky that seem to originate here or there or somewhere, but we are curiously disconnected from historical causes that bind countries everywhere in all of these wars. How have we, well-intentioned innocents, somehow gotten mixed up in all of these other people’s wars?

Here we have heroism. Here we have waving flags and martial music. Here we have eulogies and tears. Here we have everything but war or the origins of war which when we seek them disappear in the blinding white light.

We are fiercely opposed to knowing because we are afraid. We fear instability, authority and poverty, pain and death. Fear is leverage, fear is power. Fear is the visible effect but what oh what are the causes?

The causes are invisible. Perhaps the nightly news when they next describe “the news in depth,” those eighty or ninety words juxtaposed with a dozen images, will illuminate these causes for us.

The war is a moving target that we can’t hit because the war we think we see is not the war that is going on.

That war is invisible. That war is sanctioned. That war is profitable.

McLuhan saw the obvious and said what he saw. That made people uncomfortable. Discomfort is not pleasing to us. That is why – once again – we will choose not to see, not to know.

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